Mitt Romney speaks

Winning five more Republicans primaries on Tuesday, Mitt Romney declared in Manchester, New Hampshire, that “tonight is the start of a new campaign.” He might have used the occasion to give a substantive speech. But the best adjective the New York Times reporters could come up with to describe what he said was “succinct.” “Succinct” was indeed a generous gloss for a stringing together of nice sentiments. “Inane” would have been a better choice. In this speech Romney did remember not to praise the “perfect height of the trees” as he had in Michigan, but he did praise Americans for having “always been a nation of big steppers.” Something to remember.

Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers notes (WP, 4/27) that while President Obama’s budget plan has been scored by the independent Congressional Budget Office, candidate Romney has gotten away in his speeches with saying that he will pay for the $5 trillion in tax cuts he has promised (on top of extending the Bush tax cuts) partly through closing tax shelters that Summers says cannot even approach offsetting the loss in revenue. Romney seems to promise to continue to avoid the substance of how his plans will work, saying of his tax plan, “frankly, it can’t be scored.”

Despite the deliberate vagueness of Romney’s speeches, Romney’s rhetoric on freedom in his address Tuesday deserves serious attention. His vision, he says, is for an America not run by bureaucrats, but where “free people in their own unique ways, create free enterprises that employ more and more Americans.”

How much freedom do Americans have when Wall Street figures out how to package subprime mortgages in “its own unique ways” so that the same Wall Street banks could bet against what they sold to unwitting customers, making huge profits for themselves while failing to create employment for real, not Romney, Americans?

The political philosopher Michael Sandel in his Harvard College course “Justice” gives his students the correct way to think about the role of “freedom” in a just society. “A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably come. ”


Americans Elect: a third “party” hopefully going nowhere

Just when you were breathing a sigh of relief that the Republican primaries would no longer be eating up your brain cells, along comes a third party “movement” complete with plausible leaders like former governor Christy Todd Whitman, former Senator David Boren and columnist super star Tom Friedman to entice you into trying to make sense of what they are doing.

Americans Elect, the movement in question, states its only goal is to put a directly nominated ticket on the ballot in every state in 2012 and to provide a secure online counting process, culminating in an online convention. “At” the convention the presidential nominee must choose a vice president from another party, to underline a rigorous nonpartisanship. “The goal of Americans Elect is to nominate a presidential ticket that answers directly to voters ― not the political system.”

For some incomprehensible reason ― how can running for President be detached from “the political system”? ― columnist Tom Friedman has bought on to Americans Elect and wants NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for President on its ticket. Neither party, according to Friedman, offers an “inspired vision of America renewal” and that’s why the country needs a third party candidate.

Leaving aside a debate on the relative merits of Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama as inspired visionaries, it is important to nail two major defects in the framework of Americans Elect, defects which are, alas, embedded in the terms of the broader political debate this campaign year.

First, in positioning itself in the nonpartisan “center,” Americans Elect claims to be attacking gridlock in Washington. In fact, it is perpetuating the false idea of our parties as equally extreme. There is no extremity equality between today’s Republican and Democratic parties. One side wants to get rid of Social Security, abolish the Federal Reserve and Environmental Protection Agency, end federal guarantee to Medicare Health insurance, cut funding for education, shred the federal regulatory system, and bomb Iran, and the other side ― hold on! ― wants to let tax rates return to pre-Bush 43 levels.

Gridlock in Washington is not the fault of both parties in equal measure. In attacking Americans Elect, Columnist Michael Cohen in The Guardian (3/17/12) said, “Since 2009, the Congress has seen a greater level of procedural obstructionism that ever before in American history ― and it’s all come from Republicans” (italics added). He adds, “If you don’t like gridlock in Washington, vote for Democrats.”

Second, multiparty competitive elections are essential elements of democracy. By running away from the “political system” Americans Elect feeds the current celebrity political culture where all that counts is the candidates’ personal qualities (or those of his wife). But to be an individual on the Republican side in the US Congress means next to nothing. With a few exceptions, Republicans vote in lock step along party lines. Almost all have taken the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge. We are electing members of congress to represent us in taking actions to solve problems and plan for a future that is good for all Americans. How can a Republican in congress make any decisions for the national good if they have pre-decided through pledging what they will do?

Americans Elect is not a solution for the dysfunction of the American political system. It is part of the problem.